Over the past decade a mounting wave of celebrity Asian athletes has arrived on Western shores. Big names in basketball like Yao Ming and baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki come to mind. Most recently, Li Na has grabbed the attention of tennis fans worldwide.
But the original master of sports-based soft power was Chinese ping-pong whiz Zhuang Zedong, who passed away on Chinese New Year (February 10) at age 73. Unlike star athletes today who make fortunes by hyping energy drinks or selling sneakers, Zhuang came before the era of flash and bling.
He exuded a softer charm – the kind needed to gradually thaw diplomatic ties between China and the U.S., which had come to a stand-still for more than two decades. Mao Zedong reportedly said, “Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy too.”
“I didn’t know what Chairman Mao was thinking,” he told CNN in 2008. “I was merely a ping-pong player.”
This was a bit of an understatement. In reality, Zhuang was a superstar in a sport that Mao declared to be China’s national game in the early 1950s – largely because it was cheap and thus easy for peasants to play. Zhuang had developed an international reputation by the 1960s, prompting ten-time American champion Dick Miles to call Zhuang’s technique “the most perfectly executed stroke in the game.”
As with most anything in Maoist China, ping-pong took on a highly political flavor. Indeed, Mao was quoted as saying: “Regard a ping-pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland.”
Already a three-time world champion (1961, 1963 and 1965), Zhuang’s role as an unlikely diplomatic began in Nagoya, Japan, at the world ping-pong championship in 1971.
When American team member Glenn Cowan missed his team’s bus he boarded China’s instead. The then-19 year old college student from Santa Monica sat down and was promptly ignored by all but Zhuang who approached the American, disregarding his teammates’ insistence that he leave the American alone.
“Anybody having contact with foreigners would be branded a betrayer, a traitor, a spy,” Zhuang told Reuters in 2007. “When I started towards him, my team mates said ‘What are you doing? Don’t go! Don’t make any trouble! Don’t talk to him!’“
But Zhuang looked beyond the programming and saw Cowan in a different light, as a human being. “I looked at him, thinking, ‘he is not the one who makes national policies, he is just an athlete, an ordinary American’,” Zhuang recalled.
Zhuang gave his new friend a silk-screen painting of Huangshan (“Yellow Mountain”) – the majestic range that has served as an ever-present motif in Chinese art and literature since the Tang Dynasty. Cowan returned the gesture in the form of a T-shirt with a peace sign and the phrase “LET IT BE” splashed across it.
With the help of an interpreter, Zhuang told Cowan: “Although the U.S. government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people.”
Unknowingly, with this simple token of friendship, Zhuang sparked a chain of events that would ultimately have world-changing significance. Photos of Zhuang and Cowan spread, prompting Mao to invite the 15-member American ping-pong team to China in April 1972.
Soon after, as the Vietnam War and Cold War raged on, Cowan and 14 table tennis young guns landed in Beijing. During the course of their visit, the U.S. government called an end to a 20-year trade embargo against China. This “ping-pong diplomacy” paved the way for President Nixon’s historic China visit in 1972 and the eventual normalizing of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1979.
By the time diplomatic relations had been officially established in 1979, Zhuang was spending his days reading – Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo was his favorite – at a prison camp, sans ping-pong.
Zhuang had been arrested in 1976 after Mao’s death and the demise of the Gang of Four, with whom Zhuang was closely linked throughout the Cultural Revolution. He had been appointed sports minister in his 30s and named a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Reflecting on his time with the Chairman’s inner circle in 2007, he said, “I did many dreadful things that I now regret.”
Upon release in 1980, he was released from prison but sentenced to another five years in exile in Shanxi province. Zhuang was finally allowed to return to Beijing where he quietly spent the rest of his days as a ping-pong coach and enjoyed his passion for calligraphy. In the end, he is remembered more as a diplomatic figure than as a revolutionary.
More than four decades after Zhuang’s small gesture of friendship, “ping-pong diplomacy” has become a catch-all phrase to describe any instance in which soft power is used in the name of diplomacy: cricket matches between India and Pakistan, the 2010 FIFA World Cup match between Turkey and Armenia, the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 trip to Pyongyang.
Maybe it’s a tad naïve, but with tensions escalating on so many fronts around the world today, could more ping-pong diplomacy be just what we need?